Tag Archives: singles

#129 – Do You Remember The First Time?

25 Apr

DYRTFT

Do You Remember The First Time? (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (music video)
Promotional interview for DYRTFT, 1994
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Butt Naked, 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Jools Holland 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Reading 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Brixton Academy, 1995)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Tokyo, 1996)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Munich 1996)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Lorely 1998)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Hootenanny 2002)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Glastonbury 2011)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Reading 2011)
Do You Remember The First Time? (cover by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, 2014)
Do You Remember The First Time? at Pulpwiki

If you look at the depictions of teenagers on television today, they’re selfish, avaricious, out for themselves. They’re also confident, sexy and cool and they’re really at home with sex and drugs. If you look at the portrayal of children on TV in the 70s, in something like Children of the Stones or The Changes they’re terrified of the world, they’re uncomfortable, alienated and alone, and I think that’s much truer to what it’s really like to be a teenager than what you see in Skins.”Stewart Lee on Screenwipe

“All things have their place. First adolescent zip fumblings; first secret drug voyages; the first time you realise that after the first time, the whole process may never be as good again.”
– Single of the Week in the NME.

“It’s a lot like playing the violin / You cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin”Sparks, ‘Amateur Hour’

“Well do you? And why did you choose them? Was it the drink or the time of year or the position of the planets? Or was it just their hair?” – Original sleeve notes

Pulp are chiefly remembered in the wider world for a single momentarily ubiquitous hit. This, obviously, isn’t it, but it might well have a greater claim to be their theme tune all the same. When the group reformed for a reunion tour in 2011 it was Do You Remember The First Time – not Common People, Babies or Disco 2000 – that formed the theme of the teaser campaign, and which opened the set every night. This wasn’t so much a re-writing of history as an acknowledgement that the passage of time does odd things to a band’s catalogue, and that what seemed to be a song written in opposition to nostalgia could, if contextualized and given enough distance, become evocative enough to prove itself completely wrong, and therefore completely right, or vice-versa.

To open up to a wider audience with a song about nostalgia and disappointment may be an odd move, but reforming for a tour where you only play old material and using it as your introduction seems on paper nothing short of ridiculously bloody-minded. Pulp, of course, were never interested in doing things the usual way, and quite often they found that the silver lining of optimism and empathy is always clearer the more you focus on the cloud of shared disappointment. That’s universality for you, and that’s what DYRTFT is all about.

Ok, all a bit obvious now perhaps, but it certainly wasn’t in 1994, when Pulp were still relatively untested newcomers to the top 40. When a group make the leap from being a cult act to public property, it’s important to sell the concept to a much wider audience. This isn’t the same thing as “selling out” – in some ways it’s quite the reverse. Instead of selling off your fans to the highest bidder you’re opening up to everyone, going from exclusivity to inclusivity. You have to give people a glimpse of a gang they want to join, a story and a mythology to get them hooked. Every successful group have to make this leap at some point, that’s why Jarvis was always so dismissive of the early 90’s mantra of “we make music for ourselves and if anyone else likes it then its a bonus”.

It’s a hard ask, but no revolution was required – Pulp had been building up to this for a while, and there are no drastically new themes present. A dash of crap nostalgia, a helping of “I don’t like your new boyfriend’, DYRTFT is part of a clear lineage through Razzmatazz and Lipgloss, but something has clicked now and we suddenly have a much more mature take – a simpler picture in some ways, but one with a much wider perspective, near-universally relatable.

The cultural significance attached to the losing of virginity in the west is such that disappointment is inevitable. Generally speaking, nobody is expected to be good at something the first time they do it, but for some reason this particular task gets tied in to perceptions of maturity and self-esteem, and the embarrassment felt after the standard poor first-time performance is expressible only through irony and jokes. Talking honestly about this as a shared experience rather than a personal shortcoming seems to cut against English cultural norms, and surely puts paid to the odd concept of Pulp as dealers in kitsch or camp. The first time might be the worst time, sure, but it’s all uphill from there – the rest of life and love in all its joy or sadness is a great adventure to be had, or to remember for that matter.

This is, then, the most inclusive vision of the group so far, and musically it’s a larger, more generous version of what we’ve already been through – a brighter, higher resolution version of the picture. We’ve heard Pulp flirt with sounding like other 90s indie groups and it’s never tonally felt quite right because limbs had to be cut off to fit into those different shapes, and limbs are the most interesting parts, after all. For Do You Remember The First Time, Pulp are instead given a space to spread out – a big, confident sound with big confident guitars, though Pulp lack the kind of guitar hero generally responsible for such things. The model for this regimented expansiveness seems to be Suede in their glam rock anthem mode – an easy enough connection for Ed Buller, I suppose. It’s his track, in a sense, and credit is due for making it work. That swooping synth atmosphere underlying everything seemed to be the group’s sound bed for the His ‘n’ Hers tour and a radio documentary. Consequently it sounds to me like The Pulp Noise, so whatever his mis-steps elsewhere Buller can definitively be said to have made his mark on the band’s sound – though all this would be swept away by 1995, of course.

Slotting into the background more are Nick and Steve – this sort of song doesn’t need anything fancy from the rhythm section besides maintaining a steady rhythm and allowing the song to progress through the series of pulls back and releases, and they play their part well without standing out. Jarvis, on the other hand, is ridiculously on-form, by turns spitting out and whispering lines – no showboating or melodrama, just perfectly judged, and perhaps his first real star vocal performance. Something has changed, just a little, but enough to indicate that the imperial phase is almost upon us.

By 1994, the birth pangs of Britpop were well underway, as can be evidenced by a quick glance at the video for DYRTFT. It features a host of characters dressed in vaguely 70s, Pulp-ish clothes all hanging around having clumsy sexual encounters in alleyways and dingy flats while Jarvis stands nearby serenading them. Pay close attention and you might notice two future members of Menswe@r (at this point involved in a Select-constructed Camden Mod revival scene) hanging out in these scenes – apparently Chris Gentry actually lost his virginity on the video shoot. The rushing euphoria of the track is expressed by the movement of a camera on a semi-circular overhead track, constantly changing scenes by sweeping through the ground or the walls. It’s a neat idea, and it has to be said a brilliant piece of work, but the concept is taken so far as to make the viewer slightly sea-sick. Fortunately the song was also used as the basis for a short film, which we’ll be talking about in more detail next time.

The next Pulp single we’ll get to is Common People. It might seem still to be miles off, but it really isn’t. From this point onwards Pulp are a mainstream pop band, part of the now, public property, and all for the best. DYRTFT marks the start of all of this, and even if it lacks for innovation, it’s surely one of the best things they ever recorded.

Note from author: Sorry about the gap in these entries, several things have come up all at once, and I’ve found myself very busy. Entries should now continue as before – it would be a shame to stop now after all.

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#124 – Lipgloss

18 Jan

LipglossSingle1
LipglossSingle2

Lipgloss (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Lipgloss (music video, 1993)
Lipgloss (live film, ‘The Word’ 1993)
Lipgloss (live film, ‘Butt Naked’ 1994)
Lipgloss (live film, 1994)
Lipgloss (live film, Brixton Academy 2011)
Lipgloss at Pulpwiki

“She’s a haunted house / And her windows are broken / And the sad young man’s gone away / Her bathrobe’s torn / And tears smudge her lipstick / And the neighbors just whisper all day” – Scott Walker ‘Big Louise’

“We do not pray for immortality, but only not to see our acts and all things stripped suddenly of all their meaning; for then it is the utter emptiness of everything reveals itself.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“Women have been swindled for centuries into substituting adornment for love, fashion (as it were) for passion. All the cosmetics names seemed obscenely obvious to me in their promises of sexual bliss. They were all firming or uplifting or invigorating. They made you tingle. Or glow. Or feel young. They were prepared with hormones or placentas or royal jelly. All the juice and joy missing in the lives of these women were to be supplied by the contents of jars and bottles. No wonder they would spend twenty dollars for an ounce of face makeup or thirty for a half-ounce of hormone cream. What price bliss? What price sexual ecstasy?” – Erica Jong

“Men get laid, but women get screwed.” – Quentin Crisp

It’s to the credit of 1993 Pulp that a throwaway rehash of the previous year’s singles can turn out to be a near-masterpiece. Lipgloss is the result of a simple formula – “Razzmatazz x Babies = hits” – but it would be a mistake to describe it as cynical or contrived. Instead it’s just a case of “practice makes perfect.”

Why does Lipgloss work where Razzmatazz only sort-of worked then? Well, a lot of it is to do with tone. While Razzmatazz has a slight mis-match between the tragic story and the attempt to sound big, Lipgloss takes the sadness and uses it to push further. The result is a rush – an odd feeling of euphoric despair generated by facing up to your worst fears and letting yourself imagine they’re all true. Part of what makes the song work emotionally more is the complete lack of spite. That malicious empathy has gone entirely – now if anything we are the girl’s inner voice, captured at the moment she realises everything she’s known before no longer counts, and that life is out of her control, at the whims of the uncaring gods.

The title of the song came from the story of an anorexic girl who only ate lipgloss*, but this is something of a red herring as eating disorders are only referred to in a throwaway line. In general, ‘lipgloss’ here refers to an intangible magnetic quality which empowers and defines her – a close relative to ‘it’, ‘mojo’ or even ‘X-factor’. It was the main thread of her life, but she didn’t realise until it vanished. Has her lover suddenly shaken off the hold of some sort of falsely constructed feminine mystique and failed to connect with the real woman beneath? Had the relationship dulled the edges of her personality so much that a shift of perspective has revealed her to be little more than an echo? Not truthfully, not entirely, I’d like to say, but let’s remember that this is all just her worst fear. So stuck in the moment are we that all of this is little more than guesswork, but it’s all vivid enough that no back story is required.

In the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the bizarro-world version of Pulp produced by Stephen Street, and that’s where the story of Lipgloss started too. This demo version is locked (perhaps forever) in the Island vaults, a shame in a sense as it would be interesting to hear a real hit with a straightforward production style, especially as Lipgloss has a fairly standard structure and is built around a guitar-lick hook, so perhaps it would’ve been best-sided to a meat & potatoes treatment. Or perhaps not – the atmosphere generated by Candida and Ed Buller is one of the main factors driving the song in its surge forward.

Candida has a fairly minor role to play here, but an essential one. The central descending keyboard figure is hard to unhear once you’ve tuned into it* – a nursery-rhyme series of notes, it underlies everything without ever drawing attention to itself. Then there’s the other synth-line which sounds like metallic lapping water – a Stereolab song of a few years later has the same sound isolated for a few bars, but here it intermingles with the rhythm of the song as naturally as breathing in and out.

Throughout the song simply adds up to more than its component parts. The guitar sounds minimal, almost sampled, the chorus is a bit lacklustre, but there’s a continuous upward movement that holds it all together. Part of what finally sells it to me is the section starting at 2.10, where the tension of the buildup suddenly dissipates and we’re left with that heavenly, haunted synth-bed that embodies this era, and perhaps the band as a whole.

Lipgloss was the first single released on Island, and the first to have a professionally shot video after years of improvised scenes with unpaid extras. While on tour in Liverpool Jarvis had seen an “inflatable environment” called ‘Eggopolis‘ – a gigantic art project that was touring the UK. It was ideal for filming a music video, visually stunning in a unique way, but it took such a long time to find a studio to house the thing, inflate it and have it professionally lit that there was only time to film two run-throughs and ten minutes with Julie Jones in her boudoir holding up signs. Then Jarvis decided to edit the thing in Sakia’s unheated loft in November and consequently get the flu.

I can understand, then, why he’s not keen on it, but it still works, largely because of the visual brilliance of the Eggopolis itself. It’s good to see Julie Jones here too – she’s a largely unheralded figure in this story so far, but was the group’s unofficial stylist through these years, and has been mysteriously referred to as the “source of much inspiration” by Jarvis on a couple of occasions – once even saying that she was responsible for the story behind Acrylic Afternoons. Her role in the video is a little odd (she’s most certainly not the girl who’s “lost her lipgloss” and I’m not sure if she’s even supposed to be) but as a character she makes more of an impact than any other bit-part performer in a Pulp video. As well she should.

*There’s a soundcheck floating around where Candida practices her part again and again. I remember at first being unable to place it, then as soon as I had it suddenly altered the entire way I heard the song, probably to its detriment. So I won’t link it here.
**Did The Designers Republic not know the difference between lipgloss and lipstick or did they just think it looked better?

#106 – Razzmatazz

7 Sep

Razzmatazz

Razzmatazz (Single, 1992)
Razzmatazz (Acoustic version, b-side to Common People, 1995)
Razzmatazz (Music video, 1992)
Razzmatazz (Live video, The Warehouse, ITV, 1993)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Glastonbury 1994)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Reading 1994)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Glastonbury 1995)
Razzmatazz (live video, Glastonbury Park stage, 2011)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Barcelona, 2011)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Albert Hall, 2012)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Pomona, California, 2012)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Argentina, 2012)
Razzmatazz at Pulpwiki

“We never wanted to be pompous. There must be ways to sound grand without being pompous. Otherwise, it’s a bit like Squeeze or something; everyday stories of everyday folk, in a nice pub-rockish manner, which is very worthy and dull. You have to make it a bit grandiose.”
Steve Mackey in Melody Maker, 27 November 1993

“…the bits that “Hello” leaves out” – Sleeve Notes

To start, a confession. Razzmatazz used to be my least favourite track on Intro. I even skipped it on occasion, and the feeling lingers slightly that it rates significantly lower than Babies or O.U. in the pecking order of Gift singles. It was the third to be picked, seemingly because it vaguely fitted the template of the previous two singles, but being a downer rather than an upper it just didn’t seem to have the same effect. This week I’ve been attempting to get to grips with something that other reviewers instinctively grasped after a single listen, but which I’ve been missing for the best part of twenty years. Please bear with me.

The first two Gift singles had been aural representations of intense rushes of feeling, imbued with ever-rising excitement, demonstrating previously unseen scope and ambition. Razzmatazz continues this, in a way, but instead of excitement or joy the emotion represented is that particular kind of sinking feeling you get at 10.30 on a Saturday night when everyone else has gone out. In a sense it’s another grim kitchen sink melodrama along the lines on 97 Lovers and Little Girl (With Blue Eyes), but the twist this time is that instead of this being personal or observed, it’s all laid out in the form of an accusation. This is a song for an ex, one he evidently had a bad break-up with, but instead of presenting himself as the victim he’s at once the perpetrator and a perversely ambivalent onlooker. This is what makes the lyric so novel – he’s using empathy as a weapon. I didn’t even know that such a thing was possible.

It’s a line that’s hard to straddle. Being vicious and spiteful, but being so on-the-money that you’ll be forgiven for anything you say. Is there a threatening undercurrent here, a suggestion that the woman’s power lies entirely in throw-away surface details, that underneath she’s just an empty husk? Does saying these things make them true? Is this song, for all its power, ultimately an act of misogyny? In his defence I would posit that the voice in the song may not be that of Jarvis himself. It seems to be more like an internal monologue – the nagging voice of self-doubt after a bout of self-confidence is scuppered by a series of let-downs and mistakes. The part of it involving ‘the narrator’ himself are fairly minimal, his replacement – a Rowan Atkinson lookalike – has also disappeared, and she seems to be missing his company too, as much as you can miss anything you didn’t want until it was lost. The empathy has to come from somewhere, and according to Jarvis it’s because we’re down in the gutter with her.

“It’s the most bitter song we’ve ever done, but however harsh I am about the people in ‘Razzmatazz’, I’m not writing from above their level. I’ve got a lot of experience of being as sad as them, if not more so.” – Jarvis in Melody Maker, 1993.

In the interests of not being a man making judgement calls on feminist issues, I’ve asked FMW’s official feminism correspondent Tricia Zion for comment. Here’s what she had to say.

“I agree that the voice of the song is not entirely Jarvis himself. I think that it’s more an extreme bitterness at the ending of the relationship. The fact that this extreme bitterness is focused on a woman doesn’t make it inherently misogynistic though because there aren’t really any gendered insults but more a slew of general insults about her current state of affairs and insults directed at her family. (The only insult I might consider gendered is ‘you started getting fatter three weeks after I left you…eating boxes of milktray” because these are things women tend to be more upset by (weight gain) or more prone to do (emotion eating) but that’s really a stretch to call it misogyny really). In fact I think with this song Jarvis does an excellent job of avoiding what could easily be a misogynistic diatribe about a relationship gone sour due to the woman’s faults etc and instead makes it a generalized song of bitterness which, as you pointed out, excellently employs empathy somehow as a weapon. I guess actually the line which could be considered most misogynistic would be the implication that her sister frequently “misses her time” i.e. her sister is “slutty” which most feminists will agree is a stupid insinuation to use as an insult but it’s such a brief line that I wouldn’t count it as a credit toward the song somehow being anti-woman.”

Representing all of this musically seems like a massive task, but naturally things don’t happen that way round. The inception of the thing was yet again the purchase of new instruments – in this case Jarvis buying a 1980 Korg Trident synthesiser for Candida, the sound of which laid the foundations of the song. Razzmatazz was only given a handful of live performances before it was taken on the first part of a tour of London studios. First it was recorded with Ed Buller at Maison Rouge, then taken to Matrix for a remix a few days later. That version was soon deemed to be “not beefy enough” and a couple of months later the group took it to a studio in Hoxton to have the drums re-recorded, this time using Phil Vinall instead of Buller, and finally they went back over to Matrix for Vinall to do a final remix.

All this work was definitely worth it – the single version exudes quality, every little touch, every sound being perfectly in place from the low, troubling bed of the Korg synth to the all-in-it-together whole-band swoop of the chorus. It’s a masterpiece of simplicity, every sound perfectly in place, and perhaps the only thing to say on the negative side is that this doesn’t entirely match the lyrical content. The heart-sinking is there, but not really the despair, which would, after all, have been incongruous in an indie-pop song. This is maybe why I found it hard to love; all those little things, they weren’t working for me.

My doubts do not stretch to the video, however. Recorded on-the-fly in two separate countries, it’s worth another lengthy quote by itself.

“We were due to be playing a couple of concerts in France & so I came up with the bright idea of “wouldn’t it be great if we could shoot the video in the Moulin Rouge in Paris?” Imagine my surprise when they agreed to the idea, the owner even offered to let us use his pet crocodiles! Imagine my even greater surprise when we arrived in Paris to find that they had changed their minds. Luckily for us, we were staying in one of Jacques Brel’s old haunts – the extremely seedy “Ideal Hotel” in Montmartre – and in a Cliff Richard-like flash of inspiration we decided “let’s do the video right here”. We smuggled all the camera equipment into the hotel & shot over the course of one day. Then in the evening we went out, just around the corner onto La Pigalle (Paris’ red light district) & amused the passers-by by shooting some lip-sync out on the streets. We arrived back in England still needing some more material & so gained access to the “Sunset Strip” strip club on Wardour Street at 7am one morning. We arrived there to find the caretaker asleep on the illuminated stage of the club! We had precisely 4 hours to film in before the paying punters would be knocking on the door expecting “An Erotic Xmas Revue – with the emphasis on the ‘X’!”. We just got done in time. The interior domestic shots were filmed in Jane Oliver’s flat in Camden. She was working for our press agents “Savage & Best” at the time. On the day we filmed she’d been out all night so it was easy to get the frayed, slightly numbed performance we were after.”

The finished video is a magnificent collage of stolen moments, mess and squalor – all risen above through sheer willpower – with home-made glamour and an eye for detail. The editing is nothing short of superb, better even than either of the videos for Babies. Released with ‘Inside Susan “A story in three songs”‘ on the b-side, it’s another step up for the group, their first charting single (#80, for one week), and generally a successful maintenance of forward momentum.

#105 – O.U. (Gone, Gone)

31 Aug

OU1-small

O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Radio Edit, Single, 1992)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Full version, 1992 – fan-made music video)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Live film, Reading 1994)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Live film, Pomona, California, 2012)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) at pulpwiki

…so we finally made it into orbit (good init?). But like the man said “Space is O.K. but I’d rather get my kicks down below.” One re-entry later and now it’s a choice between an extra hour in bed or stopping the love of your life from getting the next train out of town. Took too long deciding what shirt to wear and blew it. But hold on, who’s this walking out of the sun? It can’t be – but it is. Talk about leaving it till the last minute. O.U. jammy get…
Original sleeve notes

Pulp’s new record label was called Gift Records for a reason. Warp / FON owed them for videos and broken promises, Sheffield owed them for years of service… and the best kind of gift you can get someone is something they can’t get for themselves. Pulp were on their uppers, sure, but their legal problems were worse than ever, and Island weren’t going to sign a group who were still (perhaps) signed up for multiple albums on another, hostile label. They were going to pay for a recording session, however, and they were also going to let Warp put it out as a single, but the road there would continue to be rocky.

The session took place at, of course, FON, and Simon Hinkler came along to sort out the production, helped by his friend Mike Timm. In contrast to 1980s sessions, they had (some) time and space, but these advantages were immediately negated by disagreements – not only between the members of the group, but also with Hinkler and Timm. The song was new, they hadn’t rehearsed it well enough, and everyone seems to have had different ideas about exactly how the it was supposed to sound – so much so that a whole day was spent trying to get the drum sound right. Even after it was finished and remixed, the core idea of O.U. is still hard to put your finger on. Fortunately this works as a strength – it plays out as a found sound, something the group are channelling, but don’t really seem to understand themselves.

Fittingly O.U. was born the year before, not as a song, really, more a series of parts that seemed to slot together; The simple stylophone slide that formed the kernel of the piece, Candida’s two-note organ bed, the ascending chord sequence from 97 Lovers, which reminded the group of the theme tune from late-night Open University TV programs, another series of dream-like images from the moments of going to sleep and waking up, the dynamic thrust that worked so well in ‘Babies’, and of course Russell’s frantic violin solo, seemingly flown in from the climax of another gypsy folk ballad, placed haphazardly over the utterly unrelated electro-pop beneath and somehow slotting in perfectly. As a performance, it was a hard trick to pull off, and while he managed it well enough live he wasn’t able to get it right in the studio, and after a number of attempts the part was sampled and flown in.

With so many compromises and seemingly incompatible ideas present, the O.U. session might sound like something of a botch job, and so it seems to have been. While not actually bad, it wasn’t the statement to the world that it needed to be, and a remix was needed.

Ed Buller, a formerly jobbing keyboard player who was suddenly getting a lot of high-profile work, had recently finished working on Spiritualized’s ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ – an album described by Simon Reynolds as “quiver[ing] with Apollonian attributes – airiness, fleetness, radiance, serenity… all about the exhilaration of cutting loose, of goalless propulsion…” – as apt a description as any of what O.U. (and Space and Babies) ended up as. O.U. didn’t need any great re-working or extra recording, but Buller still managed to tweak it enough that anyone can hear the group shift into the light, shimmering mode that would prove to be his (and their) trademark over the next three years.

O.U. is a jumble of many parts, but never a mess. For once, the story is fairly clear – a couple near the end of their relationship *or back together on an ill-judged rebound) bicker and fight, then go to bed angry* The next morning he wakes up to find her gone, a note on the pillow saying that she’s off to the train station, and by the way, fuck you. There’s time to throw on some clothes and sprint there, but he has just a minute to decide whether it’s better to leave it, turn over and go back to sleep instead. We’re stuck in that moment, imagining the run-lola-run pursuit, but also the doubt, the fear of being left alone, some stirrings of feeling – that moment of seemingly infinite possibility.

The best thing about O.U. is how the disparate musical elements are drawn together to evoke the desperate dash and the adrenalin rush of the moment of decision. That rhythm – always changing, always the same – pulled along by Steve’s almost inaudibly low cardio-vascular bassline, taking turns to swell anxiously, then settle down again into that persistent jog. Over this Candida’s atmospherics and the sampled violin swirl and rush. On stage these dynamics required two stylophones, and group friend and fanclub organiser Mark Webber was drafted in to fill out the sound. We will, of course, be hearing a good deal more about him later, but O.U. also marks the start of his transition to becoming a full-fledged member.

In the pre-Babies world, the single of O.U. was an exciting calling card for New Pulp, especially with the similarly exhilarating ‘Space’ on the flipside. It tied for ‘single of the week’ in Melody Maker with another Ed Buller production, Suede’s The Drowners, and received more positive coverage in the NME and even Smash Hits. An odd-sounding limited-edition single on an offshoot of a local indie label, it was inevitable that it wouldn’t be a hit, but the buzz was growing so much that you can forgive the group for sounding like they’ve got their chests puffed out, powering on towards the finish line.

* Something you should never do, of course. This scene features one of the first great 90s Pulp vignettes of crap relationships – “the night was ending / he needed her undressed / He said he loved her / She tried to look impressed ”

#103 – Babies

17 Aug

babies

Babies (1992 music video)
Babies (1994 music video)
Babies (1994 Spoken word video)
Babies (The Warehouse, ITV, 1993)
Babies (The Beat, ITV, 1993)
Babies (Top Of The Pops, 1994)
Babies (BBC Late Show, 1994)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 1994)
Babies (Live film, Reading 1994)
Babies (Naked City, 1994)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 1995)
Babies (Live film, Brixton Academy 1995)
Babies (Live film, Lorely, Germany, 1996)
Babies (TFI Friday, 1997)
Babies (Live film, Reading 2002)
Babies (Live film, Eden Project 2002)
Babies (Sky Arts Songbook, 2009)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 2011)
Babies (Live film, Mexico 2012)
Babies at Pulpwiki

“Although sleep pressed upon my closing eyelids, and the moon, on her horses, blushed in the middle of the sky, nevertheless I could not leave off watching your play; there was too much fire in your two voices.”
Propertius, 50BC-15BC

Childhood is not only the childhood we really had but also the impressions we formed of it in our adolescence and maturity. That is why childhood seems so long. Probably every period of life is multiplied by our reflections upon the next.
Cesare Pavese

Yes it happened years ago on some damp, acrylic afternoon. I know you got your own back years later (that’s another story) but it wasn’t such a big deal anyway – in those days you packed people rather than divorced them. I liked it that way and still do, but then again I’m imma.
Original sleeve notes

Let’s get one thing out in the open first – yes, it does feel odd to be talking about ‘Babies’ at such an early stage in this project. Common People is the headline hit now, but Babies was the song that put Pulp on Top Of The Pops and the cover of the NME and Select – the ultimate goal of indie bands in the days before Britpop. First performed live in July that year, almost a year before the release of Separations, it was first held back, then released, then re-released as the lead track on the Sisters EP. That’s where I come in, I suppose, listening to the Top 40 with Bruno Brookes, thinking “I haven’t heard anything like this before. It’s sort of good, but sort of strange, and I’m not sure if his voice is annoying or interesting…” Then for the next decade or so it was my favourite song of all time, by any artist. It may well still be.

So, it’s proving difficult to write about this one. It has so many memories tied up with it, most of them irrelevant to anyone besides myself, and after disentangling, what’s going to be left?

Let’s start at the beginning, then, the genesis of the thing. In order to spark new ideas, Pulp would try playing each-others instruments from time to time. By the 1990s this was only done at band practice, and they no longer tried it out on record or on stage. By now the main rehearsal space was in Nick Banks’s family pottery warehouse in Catcliffe, a room packed with china figurines and delinquent teenagers outside, both of which would seep, through osmosis, into Pulp’s early 90s material.

“The others had gone to make a cup of tea, so I was just playing Jarv’s guitar. He came back and said ‘What’s that?’ Dunno! No idea what these chords are. he said, ‘Oh, show us,’ and I showed him, and we were just like jamming around these two chords. Ten minutes later, there you are, that’s the song”
Nick Banks in ‘Truth & Beauty

“[Nick] got his hands on the guitar [and played an A] on the wrong three strings…. …That’s what made it so bizarre. It’s when you get the note just before what the note should be…. If you think of something that’s just one note off, it should be like the devil’s note, but somehow it’s really beautiful.”
Jarvis on ‘Songbook’

At this point, and for the next couple of months, Babies was called ‘Nicky’s Song’, and according to Russell it featured “Jarvis singing to Nick rather like Elvis sings to the hound dog on The Ed Sullivan Show. He used to run around the rehearsal room and grope Nick’s breasts during it.” You can still feel a hint of that on the chorus, “I wanna take you home…” Jarvis thought it was corny, a rehearsal room novelty, but further jamming gave the thing a story and a climax, and in July of that year it was even recorded live for ITV’s Stage One. Though it failed to make the TV edit, it was released on the ‘Party Clowns’ live CD in 2012 and makes for an odd listen. The song is 90% there, but that missing 10% vitally includes some of those little touches that make it work. It’s oddly shambling, a little discordant, and the chorus fails to take off the way it should. All the same, it stands out, and the audience seems to love it on first listen. Later gigs in 1991 have it missing, but since the start of 1992 it’s been a fixture in almost every set, essentially unchanged.

Babies, then, is a story in a song, albeit a confusing one. There are multiple narrators, opaque ‘you’ and ‘him’ and sudden shifts into reported speech. Even after reading the lyrics while listening (I know…) it’s far from clear what exactly transpired, or even how many people were involved. The description on wikipedia shows quite how impossible it is to untangle.

The song’s protagonist spends platonic afternoons in a female friend’s room listening to her older sister and the boys she takes to her room and, presumably, has sex with, but this is not enough for him and he hides in the elder sister’s wardrobe and watches her with David, who works in a local garage. Unable to tell the younger sister, who appears to be the real object of his affections, for fear she will tell her mother the song’s narrator listens outside as she proposes sex to a boy named Neve. Finally he comes “home” to the disappointment that the elder sister has moved out, presumably in an act of nostalgia he re-enters the wardrobe but falls asleep and is found by the elder sister and the two have sex, only to be caught by the younger sister, culminating in the boy making the pathetic, but seemingly genuine, excuse: “I only went with her cos she looks like you.”

Are we clear now? I hope I’m not the only one who tried to work out why there were two named boys and no named girls, why he came “home” to somewhere that wasn’t his house, why he felt having sex was the necessary reaction to being found in a girl’s wardrobe, and ultimately who it was wanted to take whom home. Looking back on it, though, the mystery and ambiguity was part of the appeal. In the words of Alex Thomson on Freakytrigger “the genius of “Babies” is that the harder you try to make sense of the story the less sense the song seems to make: and the more you think about the song the less the story matters.”

Take away the attempt at forming a narrative and you’re left with something else – a breathy, jumbled series of confused confessions, a strange mix of childish and mature viewpoints – the first joy of discovery of sex, but based on an unformed notion of what the adult world will be, or a look back at how juvenile agonies set the model for future relationships. There’s something so intimate about the way it’s related, but also a perverse joy in the revealing of salacious gossip – a recklessly throwaway, utterly immature description of events that still somehow escapes self-parody.

Perhaps even this is irrelevant. Babies works because it captures a feeling of joy – the words set the tone, but it’s the whole group that lead you there. Nick’s opening sets it in motion, and the rest of the track is made up of variations on that theme. There’s an odd magic to these chords – joyful, sure, yet with a certain nervousness – and Candida reinforces this with the transcendental synth lines previously heard on Space, only here they’re coupled with a guitar lick to sound more sun-drenched than mystical. From then on it’s a question of piling on the hooks – those poppy SFX bleeps, that beefy, almost jokey guitar line. Each band member takes centre stage for a moment, then passes the baton to the next. It’s like a selection pack of hooks, and it would’ve been understandable if they’d used them for three or four songs, or one ten-minute long one.

At this point it’s frankly all I can do to stop myself listing each second of the song as it progresses. It wouldn’t be difficult. In live versions this piling-on turns into a series of pulls back and sudden lurches. In the recorded version(s) things are a little calmer and smoother, but the delay just allows more buildup to the inevitable climax – that moment where words fail and it’s all just “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” and the song dissolves into great swooping pirouettes of joy.

Putting this level of care and craft into a song indicates that they knew what a hit they had on their hands, and the track’s subsequent lifespan bears this out. First a demo version, produced by Simon Hinkler, was mooted for a limited release on Caff, then it was held back to be the group’s second release on Gift, and recorded with new producer Ed Buller in Island’s Fallout Shelter studio.

A music video was made – the one that features first on the running list of both video compilations. Though it evidently was made for as near to nothing as possible, it’s as charming as the song itself, especially due to the inclusion of Bob Stanley’s friends Celina and Sophie as the two sisters.* The video is as bristling with ideas as the song itself, with costume-change jump-cuts, vignettes of seventies household tat, a fantastically scary performance from Russell, and an introductory frame stating that “A music video is an advert for a song.” For many this video’s inclusion on ITV’s The Chart Show was their first exposure to the group.

Two years later, when Pulp were officially signed to Island, and had a single in the top 40 to their name, Babies was taken out of the vaults for a re-release. Generally speaking, I hate it when groups do this – it shows a lack of faith in your new material to re-release old songs – but it would’ve been a great shame to leave the track as an obscurity. The song was re-mixed (very slightly – it’s hard to pinpoint any actual changes, but it sounds a little more polished, especially in the first minute or so) and included on an EP with His ‘n’ Hers session tracks. The Sisters EP is fantastic, in my view superior to its parent album, and got the group into the top 20 and on Top of The Pops. Another video was made, not quite as charming as the original version, but a wonderfully shiny collection of Pulp tropes anyhow, and all fitting so well into the airbrushed, objectified image of the His ‘n’ Hers era that it might as well have been directed by The Designers Republic. There’s a spoken word version too, with comedy sound effects; a little unnecessary, but it’s brilliant that it exists, and that they went to the trouble to record it.

It was a hit, of course, and was shoehorned onto His ‘n’ Hers – a touch of 1992 in the middle of 1994,** and unfortunately served to highlight some of the minor weaknesses of the other tracks. Not that they were bad, just not quite as good. Until Common People came along it was the Pulp song, and it’s been the highlight of a thousand indie discos and house parties, an intimate anthem. I’ve tried to get down what it means to me, but two thousand words later there still seems to be so much left to say. I guess it’s just hard to step back, the song is that firmly embedded in my subconscious.

Babies is a composition of great craft, care and inspiration, which seems to survive an endless number of listens, not only intact, but getting better each time. It’s been a long, winding path, but Pulp have followed it all the way out into daylight – mainstream pop from the group that brought us Aborigine and Manon, and all the better for being entirely on their terms. It’s an utter triumph, four minutes of utter joy, and I’m not sure it can ever be bettered.

*I’m mentioning them as Celina also sang with Golden, who released a cover of Wishful Thinking, and featured on the cover of Foxbase Alpha, therefore = notable.
*It wasn’t on the original vinyl version of the LP, which has led to an impression amongst some that it’s a CD bonus track and not included in the “proper” tracklisting. Really, though, let’s not be silly here, it’s on His ‘n’ Hers.

#74 – They Suffocate At Night

2 Feb

Video for tsan

They Suffocate At Night (album edit, Freaks, 1987)
They Suffocate At Night (music video – 7″ mix, 1987)
They Suffocate At Night at Pulpwiki

Two years had passed since the band had got together, two years of frustration with Fire records, two years of failing to make a success of things, or even get along well with each-other. Two years of living in the Wicker factory building. Two years stuck in the same failing relationship. The creative spell was over, the rot had set in.

“They Suffocate At Night” is emblematic of all of this, and more besides. The last great dark sixties ballad and one of the few tracks from ‘Freaks’ still in the band’s sets when it was released, it represents a place and a time in their lives like nothing else does. Still, it’s a difficult song to love – not because it’s as dark or uncompromising as much of their other work around this time, but because it strains too hard to be a classic, and fails to hit the target either in concept or execution. If you can look beyond this failing, though, there is a surprising amount to appreciate.

Let’s start with the production. The whole song sounds reassuringly warm, but discordant – like a record that’s melted in the sun, slightly. Aside from Jarvis’s vocals, everyone is on form. If the goal of production is to capture the moment when everyone can play instinctively together, but before the players have begun to tire of it, then we’re getting it right on the cusp here. The chorus is like the magnificent take-off of an injured bird on a doomed flight. One moment is perfect – the little descending chord sequence in the bridge – and otherwise an atmosphere of despair and wonder is successfully conjured up.

Unfortunately Jarvis’s vocal proves to be both catalyst and Achilles’ heel. For the first couple of verses we have the details of another failed relationship, but this time the characters have gone. Not because they’ve been poorly thought out, more because the pretence of presenting them as fictional characters has worn away. This is Jarvis and his girlfriend, still “in love” (or, more accurately, still attached to the idea that they love each-other) but not really – the affair seems to belong to a time that has passed, the moment has gone but they are both too scared to let go. In the third verse the veil is lifted completely as he moves from third person to first. It’s a break-up note, or a going-to-break-up note at least, and it could be a shockingly heartfelt one too, if he could just refrain from breaking out the proto-Scott-Walker-croon one last time. Hiding your feelings behind a wall of irony, or behind a pose, does not make for great art.

A magnificent but frustrating failure is an odd choice for a singe, but no odder than the one before or after. This one, however, was agreed upon by both band and record company alike, albeit edited into a bizarre mini-mix which unceremoniously lops off the first verse and fades straight into the second – and more understandably cuts Russell’s interminable violin noodlings off the end.

The professional-ish music video – Pulp’s first – isn’t actually that bad. Directed by Michael Geoghegan, apparently lighting director on “Chariots of Fire”, it stars Jarvis’s sister Saskia and Steve Genn from Heroes of the Beach as “the couple”. They sulk and smoulder while the band play in the rafters above, surrounded by the usual array of coloured liquid in plastic bags. The video was shot in the abandoned factory complex Jarvis called home, and it seems he spent a fair amount of time setting the place up, converting a sunken inspection pit to a claustrophobic bedroom. Typically, Mags and manners didn’t take the shoot quite as seriously, arriving late and failing to follow Russell’s usual strict instructions to the letter. As the days work finished, at 4am, another argument broke out, not an unusual occurrence, but a final straw. The album having been finished, the ideas drying up, it was time to break up the band again.

#47 – Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)

28 Jul

Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)
Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) live on ‘The White Room’, 1995
Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) at Pulpwiki

“It was after seeing a picture of my mum, getting out of her wedding car, and realising she was only twenty when she got pregnant and had to get married. She was at art college, but gave it up to have me.”
Jarvis Cocker, Record Collector, 1994

“My mother’s eyes are actually hazel.”
Jarvis Cocker, Mother, Brother, Lover, 2011

Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) is not a song about Jarvis’s mother. It’s just about someone very much like her. It’s not an uncommon story after all; young, artistic girl with hopes and dreams finds herself pregnant at a young age, forced into a loveless marriage, crushed by the rules of society and the law of unintended consequences before she’s even had a chance to find out how the world works. This is no melodrama, it has no need to be when (as Thoreau put it) “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It’s hardly a kitchen sink drama either – there’s no anger or kicking back here, the girl is simply crushed, literally in the last verse.

Little Girl was famously “banned” from being played on the radio by Radio Hallam’s Richard Tandy, and it’s easy to see why. Even on a hundredth listen there’s still something fundamentally shocking about it – and not just the dark croon of “…and one between your legs” either. This focus upon one girl’s ruined life seems voyeuristic, particularly in the way each line features first a statement and then an (often withering) comment. Owen Hatherley puts it like this:

“You wonder, not for the first time, whether the song’s protagonist is an observer of the woman’s plight or a participant; while the song is deeply sympathetic, there’s not much doubt that the man in it is fully implicated.”
Owen Hatherley, ‘Uncommon’, 2011.

Another possibility is that the second voice is the girl talking to herself. The call-response structure of the lyrics could be an internal monologue – the little girl afflicted by self-doubt, judging herself at every turn. Either way, the lyric is wracked with guilt. The father blames her (“look what you’ve done”), the world has no sympathy… who can she blame for this situation? At this point it’s interesting to note that the real little girl gave up her artistic ambitions because she was pregnant with the song’s author. Forget about the paintings, you’ve got to raise Jarvis? It’s enough to give a man a complex.

The creepiness of the track can also be traced to the new creative partnership of Jarvis and Russell. The two distinct voices in the song, whether viewed as ‘victim/abuser’ or ‘observer/interior monologue’ reflect the different approaches of its co-authors.

If I hadn’t been there, Little Girl would have been so soppy as to be unlistenable. My typical tactic was to tell Jarvis “stop being so bloody soft.”
Russell Senior in Truth & Beauty

Russell’s influence extends way beyond the lyrical content of the song. The note of menace in the verses chiefly comes from his queasy, slightly out of tune violin – from this point one of the lead instruments in the band’s new sound.

So far so good, but we’re still missing something here. Pulp’s first act in 1984 was to recruit Magnus Doyle’s flatmate to play bass, and now they added his sister Candida on keyboards. It was her first proper band, and she was playing their songs on their Farfisa, so you’d expect her impact to be minimal. Here, though, it’s anything but. Her breathy backing vocals on the verses and organ on the chorus are both perfectly pitched – oddly as the Farfisa had broken and she had to play a Crumar string synth.

The final person to thank is Simon Hinkler, returning as a producer. Demos and early live versions of Little Girl lack backing vocals and feature instead a clumsy crashing drum-beat on “hole in your heart.” Hinkler wisely ignored Jarvis’s demands for more reverb on the track, so while it’s still atmospheric it doesn’t sound as muddy as anything on “Freaks.”

A tour-de-force, then, and a wise choice of a first single from Fire. The song would, uniquely, remain an occasional part of their set well into the nineties, even while Jarvis was expressing nothing but disdain for the bulk of their eighties work.